I’m sitting in a low chair in the business center of a Best Western Plus (I have no idea what makes it a “Plus”– perhaps the water slide at the pool?) in Havre, Montana as I near the halfway mark of my sabbatical. Officially it happens Saturday when I’ll be tenting in Teddy Roosevelt National Park and away from cyberspace yet again (but will be feeling much closer to outer space in this great stargazing part of the country), so I wanted to get some thoughts down now.
Phil LaBelle, 2017.
To think it’s only been half of my sabbatical feels odd. I’ve been away ages it seems and visited so many places. I’ve had a week in New Mexico and then Vancouver. I’ve been in the White Mountains and the Green Mountains of Vermont. We’ve explored 8 National Parks, a National Monument and a variety of other sites, from the strange — I’m looking at you, Green Giant–to the breath-taking–everyone should spend time at the Crazy Horse Memorial. We’ve seen elk, bison, prairie dogs, moose, black bears, eagles, beaver, mountain goats, big horn sheep and more. We’ve visited waterfalls, and hiked mountains. We’ve seen old friends and visited with family. We’ve endured wind gusts pushing 40-50 miles an hour, hail, lightning, rain and the presence of smoke from wildfires at our campsites. We’ve soaked in hot springs, floated on a river, and eaten more peanut butter and jelly sandwiches than I ever though possible.
I first noticed it about an hour after we had crossed the border into Canada, although I thought it was smog. “Wow,” I remarked to Melissa, “I never thought there’d be this heavy of a haze in Alberta. You can barely make out the mountains.”
We had been traveling north along the Rockies from Glacier. I thought maybe it would pass as we got closer to Calgary.
It didn’t. And then we noticed the car began smelling like campfire. It dawned on me then that there had to be a forest fire somewhere in the distance.
We’d heard countless times that the immensity of the Canadian Rockies would blow us away. And it has some. But the majestic views have been clouded over by smoke. The acrid smell of a fire hangs in the air at all times. I woke up to see if I could catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights only to see the sliver of the waning moon shrouded in red.
I heard again about the importance of forest fires to the ecosystem on a ranger led hike in Montana. Fire deals with the underbrush that has gotten too dense. Some trees, like lodge pole pines, can only spread the seeds from their pine cones under immense heat. We noticed fireweed–glorious purple wild flowers–on that hike in Glacier, which immediately spring up after the flames rip through a forest. It has been a few years since fire had hit the trail we walked, and I saw shells of tree trunks with their insides completely charred.
While the end result may be beneficial, no one likes the impact of a fire when it’s happening. I know I wish I could see the stunning views better. And I know when the fires have raged in my life, the last thing I could imagine was new life.
We had a bit of rain last night, and the wind hasn’t yet died down this morning. The weather report predicts strong gusts all day.
Camping has made me more aware of the daily weather patterns. It’s easy to have it be an afterthought most days back home. You head out the door and then realize you hadn’t dressed appropriately. You think, “Perhaps I should have checked the forecast.”
And maybe being more aware of the weather patterns in our own lives would be helpful too. We recognize the storms full on–the hurricanes and the like. But do we really notice when the sun shines a tad too brightly giving us a burn? Or are we attentive when the wind swirls dust clouds around us lodging dirt in the crevices of our lives?
Or those delightful days that heal the soul, do we cherish them enough?
Camping, being outdoors day after day, opens my eyes to the physical weather. I hope it does the same for the eyes of my soul.
Houston, we have a problem.
So, I imagined a great system for posting to this blog with my iPad and a wireless keyboard. However while stored, the keyboard had keys pressed down and the iPad thought I was trying to log in. Except it wasn’t the right passcode. And it tried too many times, so it locked me out until I can connect to my home computer.
Posts for the next two weeks or so will be few. (I’m attempting to post from my phone when I have service.) However, I’ll still post instagram photos (instagram.com/ramblingpriest) when possible.
It’s the wilderness, friends!
I’ve been at enough national parks to know that when you see a significant number of cars pulled to the side of the road, it’s best to join them and then discover why you’ve stopped. Today it was a moose standing in a pond just as we entered Grand Teton National Park. Spotting a moose has been a dream of Melissa’s for a long time. Ten cars had pulled over ahead of us. If they hadn’t, we would have zoomed right by.
Phil LaBelle, 2017.
Fifteen minutes later we pulled up to the place we’ll call home for the next couple of days; a camping area that overlooks the Teton range. It’s remarkable. Breathtaking. Majestic.
It had nothing to do with gear or footwear or the backpacking fads or philosophies of any particular era or even with getting from point A to point B.
Phil LaBelle, 2017.
It had to do with how it felt to be in the wild. With what it was like to walk for miles with no reason other than to witness the accumulation of trees and meadows, mountains and deserts, streams and rocks, rivers and grasses, sunrises and sunsets. The experience was powerful and fundamental. It seemed to me that it had always felt like this to be a human in the wild, and as long as the wild existed it would always feel this way.”
Cheryl Strayed from Wild
On our first night in the Black Hills of South Dakota, a storm blew in.
We had been watching storms for the past few days. In the plains you can see rain from miles away. We’d watch as a black line of clouds would approach from the west with lightning strikes happening way off in the distance, but often the storms would pass to our south.
But we checked the radar on a weather app and recognized it might be a real possibility for us. One storm came in just before bedtime, so we road it out in our car, watching all the wonder and fury.
The stories about the naming of the Badlands is mixed. Either it’s from the Native American Lakota tribe who said this landscape was hard to live in, although they had recognized—and learned to survive in—the hardship. Or the French who discovered this land on their routes for trading and declared them “bad.” Whichever. The environment stands stark and hard and beautiful. And, yes, bad.
Phil LaBelle, 2017.
But there is beauty to be uncovered. Like the spring flowers on the prairie that still are in bloom in early July. Or in the playfulness of the prairie dogs running in and out of their dens and jumping up and down. Or the cracked dry mud, peeling up in large chunks. Deep blue skies giving way to glorious sunsets followed by more stars than you can imagine.
As part of my sabbatical I’m reading through Mark’s gospel as we camp and visit the National Parks of the northern Rockies. Part of this is pragmatic; Mark’s gospel takes center stage beginning in Advent for our Sunday gospel readings.
Beyond the planning though, Mark’s gospel has long been my favorite. You can read it through in less than a couple of hours, and the disciples—who eventually become the pillars of the faith—bumble around like the Keystone Kops. They clearly embody their humanness.
All of my reading on desert and wilderness spirituality speaks of the necessity of dying to self. No one wants to do this, of course. No one wants to see the image they have of themselves—their identity and all they hold close—to be destroyed.
And yet, if they want to grow, if they want to become the people God wants intends for them to be, death is on the docket.
This quote from Kerry Walters puts it well. He’s been looking at the ideas of Simone Weil and Catherine of Genoa as they ponder the need for death. He writes of Catherine’s thoughts, “When the soul lands in the purgatorial desert, the painful process of dealienation begins. In the desert, the self progressively loses its destructive attachment to [according to Catherine] ‘the things of the intellect, will or memory, and in no manner tends more to one thing than to another. Quite still and in a state of siege, the me within finds itself gradually stripped of all those things that in spiritual or bodily form gave it some comfort.’ … Weil and Catherine, as well as may other chroniclers of the desert journey, remind us that recreation is frightfully agonizing—not because the God of the desert enjoys inflicting pain, or even because there’s intrinsic value in suffering, but because the pretender self’s alienation is so engrained. Entrenched habits are stubborn, addictions recalcitrant. Once a foothold is established, the grow cement-hard. Purgative death in the desert is violent because nothing less can crack the casing of a soul enmired in entropy.” (Soul Wilderness, pg. 81)
I know it’s not what I want to experience, and yet I also know that unless I die to the false self—the one that relishes in praise from others—I will never truly grow. I don’t want it, but I know it’s the only way that leads to true life.